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Use the New Year to Improve Your Behavioral Fitness at Work

Dec 26 2013, 9:51am CST | by

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Use the New Year to Improve Your Behavioral Fitness at Work
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Use the New Year to Improve Your Behavioral Fitness at Work

This article is by Lee Newman , dean of innovation and behavior at IE Business School, dean of IE’s School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, a former consultant at McKinsey & Company and a founder of two technology ventures.  Follow him on Twitter , Facebook , and LinkedIn .

Behaviors are what drive success in the workplace. The brilliant strategy will not get implemented, the great marketing plan may sit in a drawer, and the ingenious process innovation will likely be stymied if key colleagues are not included, listened to, considered, influenced, and ultimately won over. With shrinking budgets, tightening deadlines and accelerating competition, all employees need to continually tune their behaviors to perform at their best, moment-by-moment on the job.

Yet changing behaviors is hard, and, just like New Year’s resolutions, plans for behavioral change in the workplace most often end in failure. Just ask yourself: Did I beat my addiction to micromanaging my team? Am I now the great listener I wanted to be? Chances are you set some goal last year, you thought it would make you a better professional, and you tried hard to make it happen. But as deadlines approached and fires flared, your goal receded into the background and . . . not much changed.

What’s the secret to following through on your professional goals in 2014?

Just as becoming physically fit requires consistent effort at the gym, staying behaviorally fit at work also requires practice. By thinking about behavioral fitness in the workplace the same way you think about physical fitness at the gym, and following the five tips below, you can make your professional resolution this year a reality. You’ll thank yourself, and your co-workers will thank you too.

1. Choose only one behavior. Yes, behavioral change is that hard. People who successfully change behaviors focus on one at a time. Whether it’s being more supportive, listening more carefully, learning to trust, or any other workplace behavior, achieving a change means replacing some habitual behavior with one that is more productive. And while habits are deeply wired in the brain, we can change them by understanding a bit more about how they work. By identifying what triggers a current behavior, and creating rewards for the desired new behavior, bad habits can be transformed over time  into good ones.

So set aside your list, and choose the one workplace behavior you are most motivated to change.  If you get it done, then start on number two.

2. Practice, the right way. Talk is cheap. When it comes to behavioral change, it is practice that rules the day. Becoming more behaviorally fit at work requires the same type of dedicated practice as getting the body in shape at the gym. Meetings, heated debates, tough decisions, difficult interpersonal situations—these are the weight stations and treadmills of the workplace. Developing this mindset, and having the intention to engage in new behaviors at work, is a critical step on the path to change.

Yet not all intentions are the same when it comes to their likelihood of being implemented. People tend to have simple intentions like “I want to be a better listener,” but research shows that specific intentions are three times more likely to be acted on. These more detailed intentions (known as “implementation intentions” in behavioral science) are goals defined in terms of specific situations and the explicit behaviors to be taken in these situations: “While listening to a co-worker, when I find myself not listening and thinking about what I will say next, I will stop and refocus my attention on what is being said.” Just as having a training plan can provide the needed push at the gym, creating an implementation intention is an important ingredient for a behavioral fitness plan in the workplace.

3. Measure, track, and gamify. Haven’t joined the quantified self movement? Perhaps 2014 is your year to give it a try. With physical fitness, getting feedback on progress isn’t hard. You lift more weight, you run further or you finish faster—and this feedback on your progress provides motivation, and it also keeps you honest. By finding creative ways to measure and track yourself at work, you can give your behavioral fitness goals the same kind of boost. Download one of the many goal-tracking mobile apps (Everest , Lift , Golsie , Way of Life ), and transform your intention of becoming a better listener into a fun, self-driven competition to beat your numbers every week.

4. Make it social, create risk. Behavioral research has shown that in many common situations, publicly stating an intention increases the likelihood of follow-through by creating accountability and commitment. Engaging supportive co-workers in a behavioral fitness goal can provide necessary incentives, particularly in challenging times when motivation is waning.  Co-workers can also serve as a source of feedback and help track progress toward a goal.

If this suggestion scares you, well, that’s the point. Humans are innately loss averse , a fact established by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman. In most situations we will put more effort into avoiding a loss than into acquiring a gain of the same size. By socializing your goal, you create a risk that you will work hard to avoid. And because it’s your goal—and your choice to socialize it—this can be a positive way to make loss aversion work in your favor.

If social risk is too much for you or your place of work, then use financial risk to achieve your ends. Online services like StickK provide a fun way to create “commitment contracts.” Break the contract, lose the money.

5. Learn to catch behaviors by counting breaths. Committed to listening more attentively? Adamant about allowing co-workers learn from their mistakes?  What’s critical is catching habitual behaviors as they arise. This means catching yourself not listening or interfering in the work of others. If this sounds like a tall task, it is—and it’s one that requires in-the-moment awareness. Fortunately, the practice of mindfulness meditation has been scientifically shown to help build exactly this type of awareness, as well as bestowing a range of other workplace and health benefits. Sit calmly, count your breaths, and as your mind winders, bring it gently back to counting. You may find that counting breaths is the key to counting your successes at work.

With the New Year approaching, it’s time to set your behavioral fitness goal for 2014. What behavioral change will have the most positive impact on your performance at work?

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